Study shows a stimulating environment may help the aging brain stay sharp

happy seniors in nursing home

Years ago, scientists observed that mice kept in complex cages where they could play and explore had more adaptable brains and grew more new neurons. Can interior design cause similar effects in human brains?

Two Colorado State University faculty members have joined forces to answer that question. They are proposing that creating stimulating environments in senior housing may help keep the minds of senior citizens sharp.

Aga Burzynska, an assistant professor in CSU’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies, and Laura Malinin, an assistant professor in the Department of Design and Merchandising, are among the first to begin researching the issue. An article they co-wrote for the 2017 Seniors Housing & Care Journal, “Enriched Environments for Healthy Aging: Qualities of Seniors Housing Designs Promoting Brain and Cognitive Health,” was recently named a “Paper of Merit” by the journal.

Cognitive function

“By 2050, nearly one in four people will be over the age of 60, and cognitive function is the strongest predictor of a person’s ability to maintain independence through activities of daily living,” said Malinin. “Our goal is to create a framework that connects the aging brain with what we know about interior architecture and find out if we can tweak designs to maximize cognitive benefits.”

Traditionally, retirement homes or assisted-living communities have been simple, drab places. Burzynska and Malinin say that a stimulating environment could affect how quickly a person’s cognitive ability deteriorates.

Studies have shown that laboratory mice living in environments that have corridors, exercise wheels and other mice perform better on memory tests than those kept in a solitary, basic environment with only wood shavings and water.

Laura Malinin

Burzynska and Malinin say interactive facilities that elicit physical, social and cognitive stimulation could keep the brain healthy longer. Historically, the tendency has been to remove all possible barriers in senior housing, but Burzynska and Malinin argue that the aging brain still needs to be challenged, as long as safety is preserved.

“We remove simple challenge from our lives in the design choice in our buildings; elevators are easily accessible, while the stairs are hidden away,” said Malinin. “Elevators are obviously a need in assisted living homes, though people should have the option to challenge themselves as long as they can do so safely, to protect their brain.”

Aga Burzynska

A landing on stairs

Burzynska suggests that even adding a flight of stairs with a landing for seniors to rest between floors would accomplish stimulation in all three areas — physical, social and cognitive.

“Seniors might be able to walk up the first flight of steps with a large landing at the top,” Malinin explained. “Then when they reach this landing there could be several seating arrangements for them to rest. You could have plants between seats and art on the wall; this creates an active environment that encourages physical activity and social engagement.”

In addition to the theory developed in their new article, the pair have begun testing the effects of a stimulating environment on different populations, using new virtual reality programs available at CSU.

In one of their studies, participants were given a cognitive test before and after exploring a simple virtual environment, and then before and after experiencing vibrant, interactive ones designed by Malinin.

“Though this was just a pilot experiment, we observed promising trends for better performance after participants experienced the more stimulating virtual environment,” Malinin said.

Burzynska and Malinin plan to continue studying whether making senior housing environments more stimulating physically, socially and cognitively has a positive effect on the aging brain.

“This article is the foundation,” Burzynska said. “It’s like a feasibility study, a pilot for future research.”

Burzynska and Malinin are co-principal investigators of the Catalyst for Innovation Program “Enriched Environments for the Healthy Aging Brain,” which was recently funded by the Office of the Vice President for Research at CSU. (The principal investigator is Deana Davalos of the Department of Psychology, and other co-principal investigators are Jeni Cross of sociology, Wendy Wood of occupational therapy and Lindsey Wilhelm of music, theatre and dance.)

Burzynska and Malinin’s departments are based in CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.